Take to the sea for a cool view of the city with Dubai's water taxis

How well do you think you know Dubai? Wel flag down one of the city’s fleet of water taxis and discovers that the view takes on a different perspective when you see it with the wind in your face.
A water taxi, left, is moored next to a Dubai ferry at the Creek’s Al Seef terminal.
A water taxi, left, is moored next to a Dubai ferry at the Creek’s Al Seef terminal.

August has descended like a hot, wet blanket, soaking up the air, smothering all but the most unavoidable outdoor activity and transforming the inhabitants of Dubai into seasonal creatures of the shade. Lives until only recently bounded by sea, desert and sky are now confined claustrophobically within the four walls of apartments, villas, offices and malls.

Only a few weeks ago, the coastline offered an essential third dimension to life in the city - a ribbon of well-loved and well-used outdoor space that was everyone's park, garden and swimming pool: everyone's weekend retreat.

Now the largely deserted beaches, glimpsed hazily from within the cool carriages of the distant Metro or through the windows of cars hurrying their occupants from one air-conditioned refuge to the next, promise only burnt feet and excessively salty seawater too hot to offer sanctuary from the summer.

Until the furnace cools and autumn calls us forth again from our caves, we become troglodytes.

And yet the forsaken sea is the very setting for a little-known magical experience that not only allows Dubai's heat-struck denizens to reclaim the great outdoors, but also offers a unique perspective that will change forever the way they see their city.

Welcome to the water taxi, a magic-carpet ride that can be conjured up with a simple telephone call.

Dubai's Roads and Transport Authority has bought five of the specially designed Dh6 million taxis with Rolls-Royce engines from a Dutch company, and plans to launch five more as demand increases. Aimed predominantly at tourists - and an increasingly frequent visitor to many of the city's waterfront hotels - the taxis remain largely unused by residents. And yet, capable of carrying up to 11 people at a time, they present a wonderful opportunity for an outdoor summertime experience that defies the worst excesses of climate.

The magic toll-free number is 800-9090; select your language, hit options one and then five and tell the operator where you are and where you would like to go. To be certain of a reservation, especially at weekends, book your taxi the day before.

Then get ready to hang on to your hat.

Designed to echo the shape of the Metro stations, the stumpy water taxi is a curious beast - "half cockroach, half Thunderbirds 2", as one intrigued onlooker puts it as one of the summoned vessels docks in Dubai Marina. No cockroach, though, was ever this much fun, or moved this fast.

The taxis, which operate from 10am to 10pm, are capable of 30 knots and there are now more than 20 places where they can moor along Dubai's 70 kilometres of coastline.

The fares range from the Dh60 charged for the short trip from Al Sabkha to Deira Old Souq on the Creek - admittedly something of a mad luxury, given the short distance and the negligible cost of an abra - to the Dh570 for the ride from Festival City on the north bank of the Creek to the Jebel Ali Golf Resort, almost a two-hour voyage to the south.

For Dh400, however, a taxi can be all yours for an hour, to go where you wish, and linger where you will.

One can, of course, ride in the comfort of the air-conditioned cabin, but the truly exhilarating experience is to be had on the shaded but open rear deck. Here, summer's tyranny is blown away by the 30-knot breeze as the craft - more F1 speedboat than Venetian gondola - gets into its impressive stride. No child, no matter how wedded to X-Box and sofa, could fail to thrill as the powerful twin engines send the boat skimming over dead calm waters and waves alike, churning up a foaming wake; no adult, no matter how jaded by life in the city, could fail to be impressed as the panorama of Dubai rolls by.

It starts sedately enough, as the Pakistani crewman Muhammad Arsalan casts off the bow and stern lines and we move slowly through the Marina. But as we emerge on open water, our Filipino skipper James Daguia opens the throttles and, with a roar, we are off.

Behind us, the true scale of Jumeirah Beach Residence and the whole of "new" Dubai becomes apparent, before falling swiftly aft as we cut into the Palm under its southern bridge.

Now, villa after villa is flashing by in a high-speed tour of frond-life; few people are about, but those that are wave - the water taxi is that kind of boat; it makes people smile.

Suddenly, the Atlantis heaves into sight. When you are at the hotel, its true size is lost in the detail. Seen from the shore, it is a mere scale model. Only out here on the boat, cruising past the beaches on which a few hardy souls are sweltering, can its dramatic scale be properly appreciated.

As we slip out the other side of the Palm, our only spectators are a group of cormorants, clustered with outspread wings on a pair of buoys. Now we are back up to full speed, smacking over waves that have tempted out the kite surfers farther down the coast and heading towards the Burj Al Arab, seen from a fascinating angle denied to landlubbers.

And there in the mist behind it rears the slender mass of the Burj Khalifa - Dubai's two most iconic buildings, bookends to two decades of rapid development, captured in the same frame, just for us.

We pass beach after beach, skirting wide of the kite surfers taking to the air out near the giant flag that flies at Union House, where in 1971 a cluster of emirates became a nation.

By the time the taxi slows for the entrance to the Creek - passing a fascinating collection of ships at Port Rashid - Dubai has become a different city, a linear collection of fascinating contrasts.

Seen from the sea, on a good day almost the entire panoramic span of the place can be taken in with a turn of the head, but the journey ends in history and in detail, among the busy dhow wharves, hotels and abra stations of the Creek.

It is a spectacular arrival that evokes the true story of the place, the foundation of Dubai as an ancient trading port, and is guaranteed to make a lasting impression on visitor and resident alike.

Here, one can disembark and, fortified by the exhilaration of an hour of wind and spray, brave the hot alleyways of the historic Bastakiya district and the fascinating shops of the spice and fabric souqs - the perfect end to the perfect outing for visiting friends or family.

How to return to the hot, stifling present? Grab a cab, perhaps, or take the Metro back across town from Union station, a short distance from the souqs on the east bank of the Creek. Of course, you could always keep the water taxi running…

Be warned, though; get too much wind and spray in your face and summer in the city might seem even less bearable than it was before. After all, as Mark Twain observed: "There is no unhappiness like the misery of sighting land (and work) again after a cheerful, careless voyage."

Published: August 13, 2011 04:00 AM


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